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What does art do?

3D rendering of the Louis Vuitton Fondation, Paris. Image via Forbes

Editor’s note: Maria Lind is an invited contributor for April. Below is a series of questions that she has formulated along with a recent piece on the Louis Vuitton Fondation in Paris, published in the December 2014 issue of ArtReview. Lind has invited Douglas Ashford, Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy, Ane Hjort Guttu, Amalia Pica, and Lisa Robertson to respond to the provocations below. Their responses will be posted in the coming days.

What does art do? When do we actually talk about art as an experience? About specific art works and projects? About what they do and how they are perceived? As corporate megastructures like the Vuitton Fondation and maxi-bureaucratic approaches within public organizations demand more and more of our attention, we seem to have half-forgotten art itself. Similar tendencies are also felt within small-scale and self-determined art initiatives where the quest for mere survival means necessary focus on infrastructural issues. How do artists evade this logic, or retool it for their own purposes?

Lastly, here is the ArtReview text for reference, copy/pasted below, and as PDF here: Maria Lind Text.pdf (524.4 KB).

How much can something grow before it outgrows itself? How much expansion is possible until things fall apart? Visiting the newly inaugurated Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris’s lush Bois de Boulogne provoked many thoughts about expansionism, commercialism and bad art, and some feelings, primarily negative ones. It is described in French on the English website as ‘une nouvelle aventure culturelle’, a new cultural adventure. Or fairytale? In some languages, like Danish, an adventure (eventyr) is precisely a fairytale. Frank Gehry’s vaguely organic-looking building is truly spectacular. With its many peculiar spatial setups, dwindling staircases, odd balconies and curved windows (who will clean them, and how?) it resembles a funhouse at an amusement park. Art itself is present as yet another kind of attraction, as something by which to be impressed and entertained. There are two crucial aspects here: scale and make-believe. Everything is oversize, even the artworks are blown-up to fit in both with the large scale of the exhibition spaces and the expectations of the attention economy. And it is about a fairytale-style approach to what is at hand. It is Marie Antoinette busy with her socialising and fussing over her pets on the brink of the Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II ordering ever more Fabergé eggs while the uprisings begin. It is romantic and regressive, exaggerated and escapist. No wonder, then, that the artworks are treated as crown jewels in a theatrical treasury connected to different members of a royal entourage. There is no context, neither historical nor contemporary, neither art-specific nor social, neither political nor economic. There is also no form of embracing what has been selected and combined outside of an attempt at canon-making. Canon-making as a method of writing history, as a method of curating and as a principle of running an art institution is far from a new phenomenon. It has been known in various forms since Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550), an amusing piece of writing that is not devoid of fairytalelike accounts of the lives of the ‘creatives’ of the Renaissance. However, with the boom of the commercial art market and its need for legitimacy and promotion, canon-making has regained new strength and influence. The most surprising part of the story is that this way of working is nowadays employed by some of the recent past’s most pronounced supporters of deconstruction and its critique of grand narratives, master discourses and other power hierarchies. But as this place is a funhouse, there is a strong suspicion that the crown jewels must be fake. The royal patrilineage quickly reveals itself as a blunt and anachronistic form of creating a narrative. Descending yet another staircase, and catching a glimpse of water falling on wide steps, I suddenly remember the amusements in the royal parks of St Petersburg. Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the other rulers of Russia excelled in commissioning awesome and charming waterfalls, fountains and other games. The most skilled engineers and inventors of their time helped to construct costly wonders for the pleasure of the royals, not unlike how Gehry’s technical solutions are highlighted here. So decadent-looking is the luxury goodsreliant Louis Vuitton Foundation that even the nestors of philosophy have raised their voices. Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy and Georges Didi-Huberman among others just published an article in Mediapart where they argue that the critical voices in art have also been bought by the wealthiest companies in France, which now compete for influence over the conditions of artistic production. It is not at all about patronage but about speculation and accumulation and preservation of capital, the philosophers argue, and they are of course right. The owners of these companies not only want to dominate our work, they also want to control our attention. And this current symbiosis between capital and the media, the authors contend, is only possible because the artists have allowed their work to be absorbed and become ‘designed’ art. What puzzles me most is not that the artists agreed to be part of this funhouse – most of them are not that interesting or sophisticated in the first place – but that the Arnaults and Pinaults of the world are so conformist and uninventive. About to leave the Gehry building, I realise that there is a real fairytale that might say something about this: Jack and the Beanstalk. When Jack’s widowed mother asked her son to sell their only cow (as it no longer produced milk), he instead exchanged it for some magic beans offered to him by a stranger. The beans grew fast, stretching above the clouds, where they reached the palace of a rich giant. Jack climbed the beanstalk, and aided by the giant’s wife, he took some of the giant’s riches. Discovering the theft, the giant chased the boy, who was faster and managed to cut down the beanstalk, thereby killing the giant and living happily off the loot forever after. The question is: who is Jack in our tale?


Editor’s note: Below is a response sent from artist Amalia Pica.

Artworks often just sit there in their object-hood. Artists often talk to other artists about art. But sometimes there is such an embarrassing “small picture” quality to these conversations: which glue did you use? Do you know where I can buy flat-headed screws in London anymore?
(Thinking rock speaks)
Even in their small picture-ness these questions address something that we know too well: making something stand is a negotiation with reality. Even mute things tell us of that struggle and their provenance.
(Thinking rock speaks)
I want to answer this question via an object as its audience. I am not going to pick an artwork that actually does something. I am going to pick an object that sits there.
(Thinking rock speaks)
That is because I believe in the potential of form. When we stand in front of an artwork and decide to form an opinion on it, we invoke others. Even deciding what one thinks evokes what others might think of this.
(Thinking rock speaks)
In some cases, people have found solace, refuge and company in artworks. Because sometimes the rare opportunity arises for an artwork to be effective and the artwork does exactly that, and runs with it. And I know some perfect examples. But that happens rarely and it’s as related to the moment and the people as it is to the art.
(Thinking rock speaks)
Most art works that do something for me compel me in a more incomplete way to make sense of them. Make sense? But how can we ask so much from an object? The world has no meaning and it is a horribly cruel place, as far as I am concerned. But looking at an artwork feels like I have been given a right to exercise a resistance to the lack of meaning in things. Some artworks are even a celebration of that lack of meaning, as they sit there, mocking me in the face for asking them such things.
(Thinking rock speaks)
So instead of settling for an object that I can speak about and that I can use to be articulate about this, I am going to show you an image that has been nagging me. I am going to let it be eloquent for me. Thinking Rock Speaks (2008) by Nathaniel Mellors has stuck with me for years as an incomplete thought, just sitting there. I cannot speak IT (alabaster, wire, MDF). To speak around it would be a way of avoiding the question.
But there is one thing that Thinking Rock Speaks has done for me. It has become part of a repertoire, which I turn to when I cannot find answers. It seems to make sense to me. It makes me hopeful that other things might make sense as well. Moreover I hope this is the case for other people, too.

Nathaniel Mellors, “The Thinking Rock Speaks” (2008). Image via Matt’s Gallery

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Well, I hope e-flux along with the digital revolution could be Jack, but anyway, I strongly agree with you when you comment on the lack of focus about art itself. The most comments I witness among artists and art enthusiasts are not usually related to the power of art: what it does to them, how it changes them. It is usually about the mundane and boring, the materialistic aspect: how much it costs, how it was made, how big or small it is and so on. To me, this is the most irrelevant aspect. My understanding is that the very immaterial aspect of art is its actual power, as it has the capacity of creating harmony in the world. How can this happen? By changing the viewer, by creating harmony within each viewer, like what Amalia described. The problem is that because this power is by nature immaterial, it cannot be seen, and because it cannot be seen, it cannot measured and quantified. As we live in a very stupid world, where human beings are so badly educated that they can only value things that can be measured and quantified by their limited reason, art itself does not matter. What matters is how big the building is, how much it costed to be made and so forth. Thus, what I believe we need is a complete re-structure of our whole educational system to one that does not only value reason, but also includes human emotion. For this re-structure to be effective, art itself should be at the centre and not economy and politics.

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Scandinavian Love

Some of the first works of art I encountered were the illustrations of Norwegian folk tales. I was particularly in love with a pencil drawing by artist Erik Werenskiold illustrating The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain from 1879. The tale is about three princesses who are captured by trolls, but who, with the help of a poor soldier, fight their way out of the mountain. However, the soldier’s superiors–a captain and a lieutenant–take credit for the rescue, and they leave the soldier in the blue mountain, going home to marry the princesses by force. The soldier must thwart a variety of risks to get back to the castle. As he finally stumbles into the hallway, the youngest princess runs toward him, she holds out her hand and utters the prosaic (but oh so romantic) remark, “How do you do? Nice to see you again.”

My fascination with this drawing was probably in part due to the fact that it depicted a princess at a time when the Disney princess merchandise didn’t exist. But when I look at the drawing now, I see that this is truly a princess with whom one can identify: a princess with a clear and convincing subject position, and a remarkably equal relationship set up between her and the soldier. Although the draftsman operates with a number of conventional oppositions (light small woman and dark tall man), and although the princess’s outfit and crown seem weird, or rather; conventionally princess-ish, it is their gaze and the almost physical feeling of a firm, warm handshake, that makes the strongest impression. And in retrospect, I think that this must have taught me something about love; it conveyed, rarely enough, that love based on equality is romantic.

The author Dag Solstad describes the Norwegian Maoist movement between 1970 and 1980 in his novel Gymnasium Teacher Pedersen’s Account of the Great Political Awakening that has Haunted our Country (1982). One of the novel’s main characters is communist Nina Skåtøy, who is a doctor, but choses to proletarianize and work in a textile factory. Skåtøy is an almost fanatic political figure who is not interested in a conventional relationship, but she nevertheless embarks on a free sexual relationship with gymnasium teacher Pedersen, who is madly in love with her. During their first sexual encounter, she reaches her climax and shouts out: “Comrade!”

This scene has been conspicuously often ridiculed in Norwegian literary criticism—Skåtøy is throughout interpreted as a brainwashed character who cannot even lower her shoulders during orgasm. I hereby step forward and admit that I find the scene embarrassing, yes, but primarily beautiful. What Skåtøy cries out is really her dream of liberation, of equality with her partner, in bed and in life. It is not hard to imagine that such a longing exists, and can be expressed as ardently as any other passion. Or as the narrator, Pedersen himself, continues: “At that point I was convinced that I, too, could become connected to myself.”

Among all the things that art works do, they are capable of slumbering in the minds of their lovers, until they get to work, when needed.

*Erik Werenskiold, illustration from “The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain,” 1879. Ballpoint pen lines made by the author in 1974.


It creates meaning when there isn’t any. Like a religion. It never appears when a product attempts to subsume it. Art does things that no other thing can do. What it does may change with time. It creates a neutral space, dare I say it, an ethical space. That is, art creates a space between the ideology of the contemporary, so that we may see the reality from a position of non conformity…

It occurs to me that the apparatuses of art, their commercial markets and storehouses of false autonomy will continue to adapt to the fictitious “love of man” they promise to house and protect. But the work of art, what the artwork will really do (if it is art) is to show that nature is never dominated, just known as always already a product of a person’s labor. The artwork is a person. Just as the feelings we make can surprise us, we become exposed when we face each other through the work we do. If a field of labor expands to show something beyond subservience (and these expansions are only momentary) the surprising result is often a state of being that is no longer recognizable, nor legitimate.

It is true that in art there are no persons separate from the relations built by society. But sometimes amidst the colored facts of a painting, (today for me it is Titian’s Diana and Callisto), I am faced with the fact I could be a beautiful anomaly - an anti-person. As such, I could have only the memories that are from an anti-family and I could be living outside of the body politic as a kind of being-in-denial or a being-in-death that would feel the need to overcome the false life reproduced by media and state. This of course suggests a life in disarray, a life torn between polarities of mania and depression, a life that becomes increasingly illegible to the regulatory world that is inflicted on us with all sciences committed to control. An illegible person could be unread by false progress, and then more apparent to itself. It is a disarrangement that implores us to be alongside each other – or to be inside another in the organization of experience in order to find a bearing. Without the archive’s direction we can become inappropriately joined to those we are not related to; we can have the wrong love-object, finding new uses for a body that is no longer anchored to a rational future. This might look like being a criminal, like being close to death in life, open to the drive to depart from the world. But that will probably be because the archive of normative human experience is no longer functioning - now separating history from what we are told (by the university and the police) is its purpose. Sometimes chronological order can be returned to magic and experienced as merely a formal problem. Even deep within the designed apparatuses and storehouses of art, efforts to see history as a set of malleable gestures can put a person on the “verge of insanity.


Editorial note: The following was sent by artist Hu Yun

“People have not yet recovered from communist ideology brain washing, the market force raped them immediately.”

This quote is often mentioned by artist Qian Weikang, one of the most active members of Shanghai’s art scene in the early 1990s. Qian’s thoughts on artistic practice are a direct answer to the question: What does an artwork do? By denouncing his status as a visual artist in 1996, and making the radical decision to not take part in exhibitions, Qian believes that artwork displayed in the exhibition space will be no longer be useful beyond its market value. In his words: “Every artist is waiting for their works to be labeled with a final price.” Although his personal reflections on the art system in 90’s has to do with the beginnings of the market system in China, the issue is urgent as ever twenty years later, especially in our current context.

This question is continually posed to me: what does my artwork do, to myself, to our social reality, and to art itself? At the same time, I also find it difficult to pre-set goals each time I start a new project, as it’s akin to entering a field of uncertainty. Sometimes this question could be answered, or partly answered, afterwards. By saying answered, it’s also a kind of wishful thinking.

Today’s China, where the masses have been easily and efficiently controlled by market forces, has given rise to the new government-promoted term “Chinese Dream,” which describes a fantasy that everyone’s dream can be realized in China through such endless consumption.

I’ve been working on several projects related to the modern history of the country that are informed by constant conversations with my grandfather. Working on these projects, the first thing I have realized is the urgency of staying clear-headed and awake. Before acting, to leave yourself time to think, and think. I still believe art can provide us with the possibility to build or rebuild one’s individuality.

Sometimes, artwork can’t do anything except make a pause, and I also see this as a productive and radical movement. I believe that only within the context of art we have the possibility to question any boundaries and rules, no matter if they are within a larger social framework.

China’s art community has no pre-existing infrastructure, no public funding for contemporary art, almost no public collections or art-related material in public libraries, and museums are only accessible if you have some kind of official title (being a university professor will get you in, but simply being an artist is still unrecognized). The whole art system here relies on the art market, and the commercial network between collectors, private foundations, galleries and those art museums with so-called Chinese characteristics. While this situation doesn’t leave much of space for art practitioners, we should stay alert to unstable, malleable systems such as this. Within them, you as an artist can be an institution, and open possibilities for new operating models from within.

Hu Yun is an artist who lives in Shanghai


On Little Sparta
by Lisa Robertson

In the spring of 1995, I traveled by train from Brighton to Edinburgh to visit Little Sparta, the garden of the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. A friend in Vancouver had given me Finlay’s phone number, and during my month in England—my first book had just been published, and it was my first trip overseas to participate in poetry readings and festivals—I, with great nervousness, phoned him in order to organize a date for my visit. He was recalcitrant at first, requesting several times that I call again the following week to check whether the new grass had germinated. He did not want a too-early spring visitor to see the temple to Apollo before the grass was up. Finally he agreed to my visit—it helped that he had a soft spot for Canadian poets, as opposed to a mysterious tribe he referred to as “the curators”—and I travelled north by train to meet the poet-gardener who had inspired my own recent researches in pastoral poetics.

After a night in a cheap B&B, kippers for breakfast, a visit to MacDiarmid’s tomb, and a climb up the uneven steps to Robbie Burns’ house, I took the agreed-upon bus. His gardener met me in a hatchback at a bus stop at the edge of a field near nothing else. I had expected to recognize the garden’s follies glittering near the horizon, but I saw only sheep. He had a gardener because he did not particularly like attending to the demands of plants. Almost every part of his work was collaborative, I knew that, so why shouldn’t the growing be also? I was incoherent with excitement arriving at the gravel car park, being met by Mr. Finlay, and being served by him a cup of strong tea in his screened-in porch. We sat and talked and he asked for news of Stephen Scobie, bpNichol and Doug Barbour, the Canadian poets he knew, and of Coach House Books, which had published some of his early work in the 70s. He told me about the latest battles in his war with the Scottish Arts Council. I gave him my new book. Then he disappeared indoors, and I began my slow investigation of the place. The garden seemed small, much smaller than photographs had led me to anticipate, yet it was extremely dense. I took many notes, and many photographs. Later I discovered that in my excited clumsiness I had loaded the film in my new camera incorrectly, and all of my photos were moot. This was a Petri micro, a defunct Japanese compact automatic, which I had just bought in an Edinburgh camerashop especially to be able to take slide images of the garden, my intention then being to later make a slide lecture. I still have the camera and have not used it since.

Image of Little Sparta via Wikipedia

Little Sparta was organized on the nineteenth century landscape principle of garden rooms, each of a slightly different scale, and each serving as a kind of laboratory or workshop for the elaboration of a specific group of concepts and propositions. There was the part that brought together the pre-Socratic philosophers with a typology of aircraft carriers executed as stone garden benches. There was a Rousseauian part of labeled trees that intersected with the French Revolutionary part. A row of windowsill clay flowerpots was labeled with the names of women of the French Revolution. I diligently wrote down their names, and later Mr. Finlay told me that this work referred to a series by Anselm Kiefer. There was a part that cited German Romantic poets, where a Holderlinian rose overhung a pool, and it was here that Mr. Finlay emerged from his cottage at five-ish, dressed only in a large white bath sheet, toga-style, and asking whether I minded if he took his bath. I quite expected him to drop the toga and dive buff into Apollo’s pool, but he disappeared again into his house. I was taking longer than he had expected, and this was because this garden, although not vast, was an intensely figured tissue of installation, citation and reference, and I wanted to cherish and annotate each text, name and image that I was able to recognize. Time thickened up in the garden: germination time and tea-time and bath-time.

Image of Little Sparta courtesy Wikipedia

Out behind the house and temple the scale was widest, and there, Daphne, in cut-out stainless steel painted green, fled to a grove, and there was the cave where Aeneas and Dido sheltered from the storm, amorously slowing the founding of Rome. I noted everything, and when I had finished I was offered a second cup of tea on the porch. I asked questions, jotted down phrases and names, expressed my gratitude and was driven back by the gardener to catch the Edinburgh bus. The next morning I visited the bookshop of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where I had learned I could buy ephemeral publications from Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press. Looking through files and choosing some postcards and leaflets, I realized how the garden served as an experimental hub from which these dispatches and others could be issued; whether in stone or on paper the concrete poems referred back to the inventive working site of Little Sparta. Years later in my travels, coming across Finlay installations in the garden at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the garden at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, on the campus at University of California San Diego, or in catalogues dug up in used bookshops, this notion was strengthened. Without moving from Little Sparta, Finlay directed the distant installation of concepts that had as their single Epicurean origin his thinking garden.

Back home in Vancouver it was now obvious that, first of all, I had to read all of Rousseau. I did so. That became most of the rest of my work since then.

Art prepares us for the times without crime and labour. Human life will be simple waiting the Sun to explode and disappear and art will have a new name: The Active Waiting.